Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:4-7

13 February 2009

How Much Should we Tell the Children?

This has been a sad and difficult week for Australians as the horror of the Victorian bushfires has unfolded. It has been a major topic of discussion with nearly everyone I have spoken to during the week and it has certainly been prominent (and rightly so) in all forms of news coverage. This week it has been relatively easy to shield our two young boys from too much of the detail because we don't watch the news or tend to buy newspapers. Next week however I suspect it will be a little harder because this tragedy will reach the front covers of the magazines that you can't help but see at the checkout in the supermarket.

How much to tell our kids in times like this is one of those grey areas. There are no hard and fast, black and white answers. For example a child who grows up on a farm is exposed to life and death at a much earlier age that your average city kid. And in this particular stiuation a child whose aunty or grandma has died in the bushfires needs to know much more than my three and five year old boys who live on the other side of the country with no connections to the crisis at all. And certainly we have chosen not to tell our two very much at all because they saw a FESA poster at our local pool earlier this year with a photo of a car on fire (advertising material that had nothing to do with the current situation) and our youngest at least was traumatised by that. We know because he couldn't stop talking about it.
I have been a parent for just under six years but I was primary school teacher for fifteen years before that - so I speak more from my experience as a teacher dealing with children older that our sons. In talking to children about difficult things then I have used two rules of thumb.

The first is to proceed with caution. The bottom line for me is that if the subject matter is something we as adults find difficult and distressing, we can expect that most children will have more trouble coping (even though there may not be immediate, visible signs of this) because they don't have the developmental where-with-all to deal with it. We can see the effects of giving children too much information by observing young children who have had too much unguarded television time and have seen inappropriate movies (and here I could tell you a terrible story about a class I had, half of whom saw "Saving Private Ryan" at the movies when it was on...) or worse still, children who have experienced too much in real life because of dramatic family circumstances.

I have pretty much operated on a "need to know" basis. Obviously someone close to the tragedy needs to know more than our two boys on the other side of the country. If our boys hear about it from other sources (and our son at school did hear about the bushfires in class this week as they prepared for their free dress day yesterday) then more may need to be added. Older children who see the news or newspapers, have internet access and actually take in what they are hearing on the radio will need greater levels of explanation. And certainly talking about such things sensitively for the purposes of being educative is also valid - to teach empathy, generosity, gratitude, reliance upon God and so on.

And my second rule of thumb (which stood me in good stead as a teacher, ensuring I planned to have time for this) is this...the more detail the children receive from us or from other sources about a crisis, the more we need to be available to debrief and to reassure. They will want extra detail, clarification, answers to questions and plenty of reassurance...over and over. My experience has been that this pretty much operates in a directly proportional way. That is, the greater the issue and the greater their knowledge, the more clarification and reassurance will be needed. And this is good because it provides beautiful teaching moments and also beautiful opportunities to love our children.


Sharon said...

Thanks for this post, Meredith. You have made some very wise comments.

Our kids have seen stuff on the TV when we didn't realise they were watching, but also just on the front cover of the weekend newspapers and they're having a free dress day on Fri at Joshua's school as well.

We found the biggest part of our debriefing that needed to happen was family prayer for the situation and those involved. It helped the kids to know that, when things are out of our control, we can always turn to the One who is in control. Not always to ask for help. Sometimes just to lean on his metaphorical shoulder and cry our sadness to and with Him.

~ Sharon

Meredith said...

Hi Sharon.

Thanks for the comment about prayer. That is a really helpful addition. We missed that opportunity with our boys because they have been largely shielded from it all. However it is a great point to remember because sadly there will be other times like this to weather. Thankyou.